The different rear wing approach that helped Hamilton win
But there are also some interesting technical aspects to the triumph, as his success was helped both by the way Mercedes has got on top of its early balance issues, plus a different rear wing choice to teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Fighting Red Bull
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, battles with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
The battle between Mercedes and Red Bull at the front is the closest we have seen in a number of years, as the Silver Arrows recovers from the losses associated with the new tyres and regulations.
Meanwhile, Red Bull has been catapulted into the fray having fixed some of the chassis and aerodynamic issues that plagued it last season. Plus Honda has fast-tracked its new power unit too.
Red Bull has also continued to turn the screw with yet another fairly large update package on the car in Portugal.
Mercedes, ever since its troubled pre-season test, has worked diligently to iron out its weaknesses and haul itself back towards Red Bull, who arguably had the advantage heading into the first race.
It has done this with only a handful of aerodynamic updates too, with much more attention paid to how it can extract the best from the set-up of the car and package at hand.
Portugal proved to be no exception, with the tricky low grip track surface allied to uncertainty about how best to manage the tyres, put the emphasis firmly on teams to come up with a well handling car.
Mercedes looked well sorted from the off, but it was fascinating to see Hamilton end up going down a different route on his downforce levels compared to teammate Bottas.
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Mercedes has two different rear wing set-ups available to its drivers and we will often see them trying out both during the free practice sessions to establish which one offers them the performance level they’re after at that specific track.
The changes might not seem drastic from the outside, but they do offer up subtle differences that allow them to run different downforce levels, whilst offsetting this against the drag penalty and the DRS effect.
Mercedes W11 rear wing comparison
Photo by: Giorgio Piola
The main visual difference between the two arrangements is the single or double pillar arrangement (seen above in the illustration of last year’s W11), with both offering different structural and aerodynamic characteristics that are often dictated by the circuit configuration and characteristics.
It’s unclear if Mercedes actively opted to split its drivers, given the threat posed by Verstappen, or whether it was a conscious set-up decision by each.
But Hamilton’s set-up on the rear wing arrangement, with two pillars, had significantly less wing than the rear wing installed on Bottas’ car, which would potentially give the Brit a straightline speed boost but make life a little more difficult in the corners.
This seemed to play out accurately between the pair during qualifying, where Hamilton lost out to his teammate, who had a more stable rear end when it counted most toward the end of the lap.
However, in playing the long game and thinking of the race, more so than the qualifying session, it appears that Hamilton’s set-up allowed him to not only strike against his rivals when necessary but also keep his tyres in a more stable operating window during the race.
Bottas’ set-up allowed the Finn to get the tyres into the temperature window more easily for qualifying, where you only need them to be there for a handful of laps.
However, during the race, this can be detrimental to the performance and longevity of the tyre, as the bulk temperature of the tyre goes up and this has an impact on the tread platform, which begins to slide more as a consequence.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, whose car was trimmed out a little more, was driving slightly different lines as a result of his car’s configuration, which led to him managing the tyres differently.
This was perhaps the reason why his pace didn’t seem as good as Bottas and Verstappen in the opening laps, as they had more downforce on their cars to fire the temperature into the tyres. But they would suffer from the fallout of that later in the first stint.
So, while we heard Hamilton report about there being “definitely a lot of wear today”, this was how he felt the tyres were behaving, even though he was getting a different response to them than his rivals.
As usual this was cooly managed by his race engineer, Pete Bonnington, who warned him as he approached Bottas that he might need to do some more front tyre management as the “front casing’s just starting to creep up a little”.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, battles with Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
You also have to consider that being the car that’s chasing, rather than being chased, gave Hamilton the opportunity to use DRS.
This alters the aerodynamic behaviour of the car and gives the tyres a bit of a breather down the straights.
So, whilst he suffered the pain of being behind in the opening stages, it may have actually helped him manage his tyres and strategy in that opening phase of the race as a consequence.
Hamilton’s long game in set-up choice, and his willingness to be patient in working his way to the front, ultimately proved decisive in giving him the tools he needed to come out on top again.